There is no precedent for a team trying to contend while also trying to develop a bunch of greenhorns.
Think of all the championship teams in the NBA’s storied history, including last season’s iteration of the Golden State Warriors. You can definitely point to instances where a young player saw spot minutes during a particular playoff round, but the operative word here is “spot.”
Even with the Warriors last season, then-rookies Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody contributed positively here and there. They had memorable moments against the Denver Nuggets, the Memphis Grizzlies, and the Dallas Mavericks — but saw extremely few minutes against the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals.
A fundamental truth of the playoffs is that rotations are progressively shortened. Teams want their best players on the floor as much as possible. If ever there was a time to squeeze every ounce of ability from your dependable pieces, it would be when the stakes are at their highest.
The core six of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green, Kevon Looney, and Jordan Poole saw the bulk of the Warriors’ playoff minutes. Behind them were a corps of highly sturdy bench pieces who held the fort whenever the core’s minutes had to be broken up and scattered. That was the formula behind the Warriors’ championship run last season — and all of their other championship runs that preceded it.
So it’s quite curious that those sturdy bench pieces were let go — mainly for financial reasons — and the organization replaced them with their youth movement, sprinkled in with a couple of veterans who were downgrades compared to their predecessors.
This balancing act between finances, another timeline, and the continuation of a dynasty is precarious. There are plenty of reasons it hasn’t been tried before — and the team’s 4-7 start to the season is a testament to that.
James Wiseman hasn’t really panned out yet — the Warriors have been outscored by 22 points per 100 possessions during his 138 minutes on the floor this season. Steve Kerr opted to go with smaller lineups against the Sacramento Kings, with his first frontcourt substitutions being Anthony Lamb and Kuminga.
Wiseman, on the other hand, played zero minutes against the Kings.
Though not everything falls on his shoulders, the Wiseman conundrum needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. Will he be sent to the G League to gain valuable playing time against inferior competition? Will he become a $9.6 million presence on the sidelines, eating up the salary cap while warming the bench? Or will he become a future trade piece?
The latter begets even more questions: What can the Warriors even get from a potential Wiseman deal? But that’s another topic for another article.
Instead, what the sorely needed win against the Kings showed was that the two-timeline plan is currently on shaky ground. The timeline the Warriors have been on in the past, the one they’re currently in, and — if the youth movement doesn’t pan out anytime soon — the timeline they’ll be in for the foreseeable future is one that’ll still revolve around a singular force: Steph Curry.
Curry squeezed every ounce of his all-time-great ability to power the Warriors past the Kings, 116-113. His 47 points came on an extremely efficient 83/58/86 shooting split (2P/3P/FT) and an otherworldly 86.8 TS%, to go along with 8 rebounds, 8 assists, and zero turnovers.
In truth, it was anything but a sustainable approach to winning games — even Kerr himself admitted as such.
“We felt comfortable chasing this one with heavy minutes (for the starters) and it was obviously necessary. But it's not sustainable. So we know we can't do this for long.” - Kerr on getting the win to end a five game skid— Kerith Burke (@KerithBurke) November 8, 2022
The difference when Curry was on the floor with reliable teammates around him — as opposed to having to accommodate developing pieces who may not currently have a solid grasp on timing, positioning, and overall awareness — was there for everyone to see.
As an example, this particular possession against the Orlando Magic was revelatory:
Something I noticed upon re-watch.— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) November 4, 2022
1st clip: Steve Kerr calling for “HORNS Twist.” For some reason, James Wiseman doesn’t seem to get into the action w/ much force or urgency.
2nd clip: What “HORNS Twist” should look like. pic.twitter.com/ESI14VAxSa
An important aspect of almost every set play the Warriors run is timing. One of Kerr’s favorite buzzwords is “force” — in other words, every action must be run with intentionality. That includes timing without any hint of hesitation.
“HORNS Twist” is arguably the one set requiring the most force for maximum effectiveness. Each ball screen must be set almost immediately, one after the other. If one part falls behind, the entire set stagnates. Curry may have gotten the switch he wanted above, but his rhythm is off because the entire play’s rhythm is off.
Contrast it with this possession against the Kings:
Warriors run HORNS Twist as an ATO. This is how it's supposed to be -- the timing is crisp, the Kings give up the Sabonis switch. Steph gets the three over him. pic.twitter.com/wnjL0mq9Cn— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) November 8, 2022
Curry gets the switch onto Domantas Sabonis above, but the difference here is rhythm. The set flows without interruption; once Curry gets the matchup he wants, all he has to do is seamlessly pull up for a three against a compromised and limited defender in space.
Actions above are low-hanging fruit for the Warriors because Curry remains one of the league’s deadliest operators around ball screens. Whenever he’s the ball handler in the pick-and-roll — with him finishing the possession or a teammate to whom he passes — the Warriors have scored 1.26 points per possession (PPP). That is the fourth highest mark among 76 players who have tallied at least 50 such possessions, per Synergy.
But ultimately, it was Curry in isolation that did the trick against the Kings. He’s at a relatively moderate 1.06 PPP on isolations that include passes to teammates who score — 16th among 39 players with at least 25 such possessions, per Synergy.
But when push comes to shove, Curry has absolutely proven himself to be one of basketball’s premier isolation scorers, difficult to guard in space with his shiftiness, craft, and ball handling, while finding innumerable ways to score against good one-on-one defense.
If only for the Warriors’ collective spirit to remain fragmented but intact, this win was necessary. But there’s still much work to be done to repair what is looking to be a fundamentally flawed roster.
To be clear, the flaw isn’t situated within the Warriors’ starting five. Among 37 five-man lineups who have tallied a minimum of 50 minutes played, the Warriors’ starters are outscoring opponents by 26.2 points per 100 possessions — fourth best.
Every other five-man lineup for the Warriors are being collectively outscored by 10 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning The Glass — and that’s where the crux of their problems lies.
To be even more specific: Last season, the Warriors barely survived the non-Curry minutes (minus-2.4 net rating); with Jordan Poole in place of Curry, such lineups were a net neutral (plus-0.3), which might as well have been a positive considering how important Curry has been to the team’s survival.
This season hasn’t been as kind. Non-Curry minutes have seen the Warriors put up a net rating of minus-20.1. Poole as Curry’s substitute hasn’t helped, either — the Warriors are sporting a minus-19.0 net rating in such minutes, per Cleaning The Glass.
If the Warriors manage to recover their way to a bona fide playoff spot — that is, with no need to claw their way amid the muck that is the play-in tournament — they’ve accumulated enough equity to survive multiple playoff series and find their way back to another NBA Finals.
But the process toward that point must also be respected. The Warriors rampaged their way to an 18-2 start last season, which cushioned them against injury-related slumps and dog days. They managed to hold on to the no. 3 seed, which was still an excellent position to be in. They had the requisite depth to survive the long grind of the regular season.
This year is proving to be different — a roster that isn’t as deep, with a bench that is proving to be a significant downgrade. The timeline for contention this season is still wide enough for the Warriors to capably recover, but only if they acknowledge the one true timeline they need to adhere to.
Curry’s averaging 32.6 points on 63/43/93 splits (2P/3P/FT), to go along with 7.1 rebounds and 6.9 assists. His 68.5 TS% is 11.5 percentage points higher than league average and is on pace to shatter his unanimous-MVP mark (66.9%). Despite such astronomical efficiency, the Warriors only have a 4-7 record to show for it.
Without Curry, the Warriors fall apart. That has been true in the past; it has never been truer than it is now; and it will continue to be true for as long as he’s capable of being the face of the franchise.